Early on in her nearly 20-year career at Best Buy, Corie Barry was deemed a “risk to the organization” in a performance review. Unnerved by the assessment, Barry decided to work on what she was told were her shortcomings, rather than bolt.
“You can decide somewhere here there is a nugget of truth, somewhere in here there are things I need to work on,” Barry told the audience at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit on October 23 in Washington, D.C. “I buckled down.” And at the next assessment, she brought her own development plan.
The perseverance has of course paid off handsomely for Barry: she was named CEO of Best Buy, a $43 billion, retailer in June, and at 44, became the youngest female CEO in the Fortune 500. (Last month, in her first presentation to Wall Street, she laid out her plan for getting to $50 billion in sales by 2025.)
Barry grew up in small town Minnesota, raised by a painter mother and a leather worker father. But the uncertainty surrounding where the next meal would come from led her to seek more structure in her own work life.
So she gravitated toward accounting. “I’m probably the only person on earth whose parents were really disappointed when I said I wanted to go be an accountant,” Barry quipped.
At Best Buy, Barry sought to build her capabilities over the years by taking on jobs outside her comfort zone or existing skills set, or even those that were ill defined. That ultimately helped her climb the ranks at Best Buy.
After Best Buy’s near death experience in 2012—when it lost its then-CEO to scandal, and sales were under enormous pressure from Amazon.com muscling in on its consumer electronics market—Barry again decided to stick it out, rather than flee.
She eventually became a chief lieutenant to her predecessor, executive chairman Hubert Joly, and was a key architect of Best Buy’s stunning comeback—one that was fueled by embracing price matching with Amazon and creating spaces in its stores for major consumer electronics brands to showcase their wares and teach customers how to use them.
“If your purpose is stewardship, and leaving when things are bad is the ultimate crime,” she recalled.
As recently as five years ago, becoming CEO was not even a remote idea for her, Barry said. But as the possibility starting creeping into her mind, Barry said she set about gathering the skills she thought would be needed.
“I wanted the CEO job. I worked hard to acquire to get the skills that I thought would get me ready for it,” Barry said. “I don’t think anyone, at the end of the day, really expects someone to look you in the eye, and say ‘You’re going to be the CEO of a $43 billion company.’”
Now that she is CEO, Barry is working to continue Best Buy’s growth, betting heavily on health care and how, for instance, tech can help seniors stay in their homes longer. For now, as a rookie CEO, she says, Barry is taking in a lot of commentary from colleagues and her circle about how she’s doing.
“When people ask me what’s the biggest surprise about being CEO? For me, it’s been the amount of feedback you get and how many places you get it,” she joked. At the same time, Barry added, that will help her do her job even better.