Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

The pandemic forced innovation, but the expected recession may push businesses to do even more

October 12, 2022, 11:20 PM UTC
Michelle Gass, Kohl’s CEO and Julie Sweet, chair and CEO of Accenture, take the stage at Fortune's MPW Summit on Oct. 11, 2022.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

The effects of COVID-19 forced companies across many industries to adapt and innovate rapidly. Yet even as the pandemic subsides, there are opportunities for business leaders to continue to apply the lessons they have learned over the last few years.

“Where we are today … retail is a completely different industry [than in 2019],” Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass said Tuesday during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in California. “So many changes—from living through the pandemic, supply chain challenges, the spikes in demand, the pull back in demand, labor.”

But the roller coaster ride likely isn’t over yet, as many experts predict the U.S. will enter a recession next year due to the Federal Reserve’s attempts to tamp down soaring inflation with interest rate hikes.

Gass said Kohl’s is already grappling with recession fears and inflation woes. “We’ve already started feeling it,” she said. “We operate in the more discretionary categories, as opposed to food and gas, and where a lot of budgets are being constrained. And so, as we see this unfolding, we are quickly adapting.” 

While Gass acknowledged that her company is holding off on stocking up on inventory, Kohl’s, like many companies today, is using the current circumstances as a “catalyst for change,” she explained. “Oftentimes the harder things are around really structurally changing your cost, structurally changing the way you’re working,” she said. 

The retailer is also utilizing customer data more than ever before. Gass noted that Khol’s serves 65 million customers across the country, and the chain has over 30 million subscribers in its loyalty program.

“For someone passionate about data—because it’s a treasure chest—we’re able to tailor and actually do different offers for Julie and Alan, based on what’s going to get them motivated to come and shop,” Gass said. “That, especially in this environment, is extremely powerful to make sure that you’re giving offers to people who need it, versus not.”

But utilizing data comes with challenges as well, said Julie Sweet, chair and CEO of Accenture. “This is the area where I think everyone intuitively understands that data is important. And I’ve not yet found a company that has actually solved the problems of data,” she said. 

Sweet’s team is spending time talking to CEOs today around five key forces of change, the first being the “total enterprise reinvention through technology.” Sweet said most businesses have talked about digitization, but reinvention goes a step further and asks companies to systematically overhaul everything that they do. “That has profound implications for how you invest and think about the future,” Sweet said. 

Talent is the second key—how companies access talent, create opportunities to unlock talent potential and build pathways to future growth. 

Sustainability, broadly, is third. It includes aspects like energy transformation, but it’s also about diversity and what companies are doing within the communities they operate and how that all translates to the bottom line, Sweet said.  

The metaverse is the fourth key force of change, an area where Accenture in particular has made a  lot of investment, building its own metaverse for onboarding and employee training. “I will say lots of debate around this, but there isn’t a company or industry that doesn’t need to be thinking about what is it going to be like to go in and out of the virtual and physical world and how will that profoundly change everything, from what we buy, how we buy it, to how we work,” Sweet said. 

Finally, the last aspect is the “ongoing technology revolution,” Sweet said. Companies are already investing in this today, but Sweet said leaders need to be able to think ahead and really understand how those trends might affect the business. “It’s also an important part of what CEOs and their leadership teams have to do today.”

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.