Phil Arrata of Best Buy Canada on Building Breadth and Learning How to Learn

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Phil Arrata is the Chief Financial Officer of Best Buy Canada, the Canadian arm of a multinational consumer electronics retailer. Phil is a seasoned growth and transformation executive with a track record of turning around businesses and business units. His experience spans consulting roles at McKinsey & Company and Deloitte, to leading various functions at Best Buy. As a C-level executive Phil places a heavy emphasis on people, talent acquisition and talent development to ensure sustained momentum and succession planning. He is a graduate of McGill University and holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management.

Tell me about the journey that you’ve taken to getting to the leadership position you are currently in. Is there a defining factor, skill or quality that has helped you get to where you are now?

My toughest transition was moving from consulting to industry. Due to the nature of consulting, you tend to manage in terms of small groups of people on very specific problems over short periods of time. In that environment, the leadership you provide is mostly thought and problem solving leadership. When I transitioned, I had to develop my people leadership muscle and that was all about building high performing, high caliber teams. My philosophy has always been to find capable people who can work independently and think creatively and then have them be accountable for their results. I’ve found that if you do that well, it creates the time to start tackling new problems, while developing strong people in the company. That has been one of the most important things that has helped me get to where I am now.

What is your definition of business transformation? What are some of the major transformation trends shaping your industry?

To me, business transformation is about changing the way we work to respond to a change in market dynamics. It’s about making material changes internally to respond to material changes externally. Those dynamics could range from changes in how customers interact with a product/ service, structural macro economic shifts or shifts in the labor force. The hardest part of responding to change ultimately comes down to changing the way we think and work.

For example, it’s quite hard these days to find really good finance talent. RPA and machine learning are now becoming important alternative options that we need to explore in order to fill some of the gaps we are dealing with in the labor force. Those technologies will allow us to be faster, more accurate and will help us create better jobs for the people who are coming out of school over the next decade. The transformational part is about getting the company on board with adopting new technology.  Leaders need to make sure that their people understand the nature of those shifts and that everyone is brought along for the ride.

When it comes to leading transformations, what are some of the most important things that leaders need to think about in order to be successful? Why?

Making a big change is easy when things aren’t going well and the company is in a bad position. The more difficult part is identifying opportunities and driving change when things are going well. Companies often get complacent and if you don’t continue to reinvent your business, then someone else will and take your place. When things are going well, you have to focus on the promise of what’s next and how much better that future will be for people in the company and the company overall. Leaders need to be able to paint that picture because making changes when things are going well taps into the discretionary efforts of your people and they need to understand the real benefits.

What is an important business lesson that you’ve had to learn the hard way? What did you learn and how did it make you better?

When I was in consulting, I distinctly remember a period of time where I completely neglected my personal well being. I didn’t prioritize eating right, exercising, was working very long hours and traveling a lot. One day it hit me how unhealthy I had gotten and the impact that it was having on my life. As leaders, I think it’s important to take a step back (and encourage others to do so) to reflect on personal well being. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in our work that we forget about things like friends, family and more generally, our spirit. We need to think about how we are prioritizing where we spend our time in both our personal lives and professional lives. Take vacation, work from home when you need to and always try to broaden your perspective.

The second lesson I learned is the importance of patience. When I think about what it was like becoming a C Level executive, I’ve always told my team that those kinds of opportunities come about as a result of being the right person at the right time with the right opportunity at the right company. Lots of things need to align all at once. I’ve come to learn that if you produce exceptional work and continuously perform at a high level, opportunities will come your way, even if they aren’t immediate. Even if you aren’t doing something that you love right now, you need to be persistent and play the long game.

Given all of the rapid change happening in the world right now, what is your perspective on the ways we need to rethink going about building our careers?

The thing we forget is that you go to school to learn how to learn. School doesn’t teach you how to be successful over the long term. What you learn in school likely won’t be relevant for more than the following 12-24 months. When I did my MBA, the topic of RPA and machine learning wasn’t even in the conversation and now, if you don’t know about those things you are behind. To stay sharp today you need to make sure you are constantly reading to understand what is going on and being a general consumer of new information. Go to conferences, sign up for webcasts and read a lot of books in order to stay current.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone in the workforce today to achieve success and find work that is fulfilling?

I can’t over emphasize the value of lateral moves. Most people concern themselves with advancement in terms of levels and titles but so much learning is lost when you focus on that. Lateral moves are what give you breadth and pay significant dividends when you are trying to move into a leadership position. As you get more senior, lateral moves become hard because at a certain level, the expectations change. There are fewer people out there who are ready to become general managers because they lack breadth of experience. It is all about finding the commonalities that exist across different roles and if you want to be an expert in an industry not just a function within an industry, seek broad experiences.

Aubrey Chapnick