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How the CEO of Staples uses faith to stay focused


As the CEO of Staples, Shira Goodman uses her faith to help her stay focused and guide her as a leader.

Goodman, SM ’87, has been at the office supply retailer since 1992 and was named CEO last fall after Ron Sargent stepped down from the role following a failed bid to merge with Office Depot. In a Feb. 14 talk at MIT Sloan, she explained three ways her Jewish faith informs her work.

Get a mentor.
“Find yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably” is a teaching from the Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of ethical teachings in the Jewish faith, Goodman said. In her career, she found two “towering figures” who influenced her career — Staples co-founder Tom Stemberg and former CEO Sargent, whom she worked with for many years.

Following her graduation from MIT Sloan, Goodman worked in consulting at Bain & Company, where she first became acquainted with Stemberg, as Staples was her client at Bain. The pair researched whether Staples should have a delivery business (the answer: “yes”) and Goodman eventually left Bain for Staples.

In 1992, Goodman and her husband planned to move to New York City so he could attend rabbinical school. She tried to resign from Staples, but Sargent convinced her to stay and gave her a telecommuting position.

It’s one of the reasons that Goodman “bleeds Staples red to this day.”

Recreate your business. Every day.
This is consistent with the Jewish idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to “repair” or, to use Goodman’s word, “recreate” the world to continually make it better. To be in business today, a company needs to recreate its business each day, Goodman said.

“Today, while most people think of us as an office products retailer, the reality is that over 60 percent of our sales, and an ever greater percentage of our profit and cash flow, is from our delivery business,” she said.

Goodman said Staples is facing threats from Amazon and in the transformation of how people work today. “I call it double digitization. What we sell [paper and ink] is being digitized and how we sell it is being digitized … the transformation is really, really hard and morale and retention is a constant challenge.”

Staples is heading off the threats by making some strategic moves — such as selling off its European business, a decision Goodman said has been one of her toughest — and piloting Workbar, a co-working space.

Take time out.
Goodman credits her weekly observance of the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest that begins on Friday at sunset and ends Saturday at nightfall, with keeping her grounded.

As part of this observance, Goodman said, “For me, this 25-hour ‘time-out’ is when, by and large, I try to go technology free … I really go off the grid and I think this helps me stay sane,” who added that if there’s a work-related emergency, she can be reached.

Goodman said she does some of her best thinking on that day, and when she shared her custom with Staples associates on an internal blog post, she was inundated with similar stories of how others unwind by various activities such as reading, exercising, or spending time with family.

It means that even in the midst of a hard transformation at the retail giant, associates are still encouraged to “replenish and have a life.”

Goodman’s talk was sponsored by the Sloan Jewish Students Organization and the Retail, Consumer Packaged Goods, and Luxury club.

For more info Zach Church Editorial & Digital Media Director (617) 324-0804