Follett’s Executive Board Chair Helena Foulkes on Leadership & Empowerment

March 30, 2023

In honor of Women’s History Month, Carlie Dos Santos, our VP of Talent Management and Chair of Follett’s DEIB Council spoke with Helena Foulkes, the new Executive Chair of Follett Higher Education, about Helena’s career as an executive and leader in the retail industry. From building trust with employees to doing hard things when it matters most, Helena Foulkes shares her insights on the key components of leadership and professional growth. 

Carlie: Helena, you’ve had an impressive career in the retail industry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey and what led you to where you are today? 

Helena: Right out of business school, I spent 25 years at CVS, and in the last four years, I was president of the retail business, so we had 10,000 stores and 200,000 people. The thing I’m most proud of in my leadership of the company was the decision we made to get out of cigarettes. Our purpose was to help people live healthier lives, and there was an enormous sense of pride in that.  For me, this was deeply personal because I had lost my mother to lung cancer five years before. 

After I left CVS, I served as CEO at Hudson’s Bay, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue. After my time at Hudson’s Bay, I spent about a year running for governor of Rhode Island. I had never run for office, but I really wanted to make a difference, particularly in education. I lost to the incumbent governor of Rhode Island in the primary by just 2,000 votes. I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t [run], and I’m really, really glad I did. I came out on the other end feeling like a better person because of the experience.  

On a personal level, my husband and I have been married for 34 years. When I was early in my career at CVS, I had four kids in four and a half years. It was a lot! When my fourth child was a year old, I found out I had thyroid cancer. I was working pretty much that whole time, but for me, that’s part of my origin story, too, because it gave me a deeper sense of empathy for what people go through. 

Carlie: As I was listening to you, I was thinking about the hard decisions you’ve had to make and the importance of influence. Can you share with us how you’ve approached using your influence to drive those decisions?   

Helena: My mental shift went from an achievement orientation to an influencer orientation. Early in my career, I was trying to achieve the best results, have the best numbers, produce the most–sort of like getting the best grades in school. But what I realized over time is that your ability to affect change is multiplied by gazillions once you really think about how you influence people to come along with you.  

I was an entrepreneur at a big company, so I could not possibly do it all myself. I had to have allies around me. A big part of influence is really getting in the shoes of people. You need to understand what excites them, but also what terrifies them, and how you can adjust your thinking to better reflect their issues and concerns.  

Carlie: What leadership philosophy have you developed over the years, and how have you applied it to leadership roles in your career? 

Helena: When approaching a challenge, I really think about what’s going to make us proud, grounding us in that sense of pride and purpose and getting people to articulate it. If you can get people to identify both what they’re excited about for a project and what they’re afraid of, often the answer comes in something that takes advantage of both of those.  

Returning authority is a really big part of this leadership philosophy, which simply means meeting people, very much peer-to-peer, and connecting with people so that they can trust you and have an honest dialogue. The final part of it is called work-focus planning. Once you’ve agreed as a team on a very clear timeline set of owners and milestones, everyone holds themselves accountable to it. 

Carlie: Can you talk about the importance of building trusting relationships and how it has helped you professionally and personally? 

Helena: I worked with some amazing people at CVS, and I learned great leadership. The [bosses] who were most effective built trust with me and with partners. When you build trust, it benefits you and the organization for a very long period of time. 

I think empathy and trust are related. [Going through cancer] gave me a deeper sense of empathy for what people go through. We don’t always know people’s story. We don’t always know what they’re struggling with. That’s why I find building trusting relationships is so important. I got better at that after that very tough period in my life. As terrible as it was, I’m grateful for the experience. I was only 35 when I got cancer, and I emerged from it really focused on what’s important in life.  

Carlie: What motivated you to keep going and push through tough times in the workplace, especially as a woman, and what did you learn from those experiences? 

Helena: I did what most women do, which is keep going. I was the primary breadwinner in my family. When you do something like that you realize you can do harder things than you think.  

The hardest time personally, for me, in many ways was when my kids were really little. Honestly, my job wasn’t as fun yet. My job got a lot more fun as I got more [responsibilities]. I’m so glad I did not leave what I was doing—I was better for that experience and stronger. There are times in your life where you have to be gentle on yourself and you can’t be full throttle. You pull back and do what you need to in certain periods in life. 

Carlie: What is your perspective on the benefits of doing hard things, even if the outcome is not what you had hoped for? 

Helena: One analogy that I’ve often used is marathons. I’ve run four, and when you’re in the middle of it, you hate it. It’s exhilarating, but at mile 21 you’re like, “why did I do this awful thing?” Then you get over the finish line and you’re like, “that was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.”  

So there are a lot of things in our life which in the moment are very painful and bring enormous joy afterwards. I think that great periods of growth come from the hardest periods in our life, not our easiest. Even if you don’t get the outcome you want, you build muscles, and other things get unlocked that you couldn’t have imagined.  

Follett: You mentioned that further along in your career, the job got more fun. What were you able to do? 

Helena: I loved having impact, and I felt like my impact grew as my responsibilities grew. I loved being tested and challenged. Oftentimes, in your twenties and thirties it’s almost like your intellect is there, but you don’t have all the experiences yet. So you sort of know that you have the potential to take on more responsibility or do things that are more exciting, but you can’t do it yet. That’s when it’s easy to get frustrated.  

You know, I didn’t have enough role models in my life of working women who had kids. I came of age in a time period where, in the places where I worked, there were no senior women to look up to and say, “oh, I’d like to be like you.”  

What’s so exciting about being in the working world today, there’s so much more diversity at the top of all of our organizations. Women of today, and young women in particular, are doing a really amazing job being there for each other. If I have a worry, it’s that I sometimes worry that women feel uncomfortable with ambition. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to big things professionally while also flourishing personally.  

Follett: Speaking of women helping women, how do you see that playing out in your work experiences?   

Helena: I’ve had the great gift of having many amazing mentors who’ve helped me in my life, and I’ve also had the pleasure of being a mentor to other people. I always remind women who are seeking mentors that you bring a gift to the senior people that you [seek] out to be your mentors: your perspective on the organization. 

Hear more from Helena Foulkes in this short video.