Last week I had the honor of being the closing keynote speaker for CVS Health’s National Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida. I spoke to 1,800 of the CVS senior team who lead their 243,000 colleagues (they don’t use the
e-word at CVS). CVS Health is the largest health care-related company in the U.S. The company ranks No. 18 on the Fortune 500, with nearly $153 billion in revenue in 2015.

Before I went on stage, I had a few private moments with CVS’s President, Helena Foulkes. Helena is responsible for the company’s 8,000 retail stores across 49 States and Puerto Rico, as well as the 1,663 CVS Pharmacies inside Target stores. It took me seconds to sense that Helena was a visionary, a fearless leader and someone not afraid to make tough decisions.

Something I learned from Helena is that the greatest companies make the toughest decisions. Decisions that may affect their bottom-line in the short term, but that otherwise could be detrimental to the company’s long term success. A few years ago CVS changed their name to CVS Health. They wanted to focus on being a health care company – not just a retail store. Their purpose statement is eight words: Helping People on the Way Towards Better Health. A landmark moment in CVS’s transformation came in 2014 when the company announced that CVS would cease selling tobacco products – a decision that meant sacrificing about $2 billion in annual sales. $2 billion!

Great companies make the toughest decisions.

A few months ago I was honored to be the opening keynote speaker at Omni Hotels National Managers Conference. Omni Hotels & Resorts, which has 60 properties in the US, is owned and chaired by my friend, Bob Rowling. Bob knows all about making tough decisions. Back in 2000, Bob was the first major hotel chain to pull the plug on adult movies. Rowling was flipping through the channels in one of his hotels and was shocked at the pornographic movies available. “As a father of two sons, I was uncomfortable with the late-night entertainment available at our hotels,” said Rowling. “We made a conscious decision not to profit from pornography and to eliminate the adult movies from our hotels. I believe it was the right thing to do.”

Interesting – Helena Foulkes said the exact words describing CVS’s move to pull tobacco off their shelves. “It was the right thing to do.”

Lesson learned – sometimes the toughest decisions are also the right thing to do.

And, sometimes our toughest decisions can be to not change at all. Southwest Airlines is the perfect example.

I once had the honor of meeting Southwest’s CEO, Gary Kelly, at a luncheon. I asked him what was the company’s secret sauce for being the only airline carrier in the world with 43 consecutive years of profitability. His answer said it all, “We just stayed true to who we are.” Southwest is the only major world airline that allows two bags checked free. Free for every customer on every flight. “Other airlines may extend perks to their most elite passengers, but the nearly 120 million people who fly with us every year benefit from the Southwest brand standard of Bags Fly Free® – and we’re proud to stand alone,” states Emily Samuels, Corporate Communications for Southwest.

Other airlines charge and upcharge for checked bags, more leg room, early boarding, carry-on bags, choice seating, snacks, drinks, Wi-Fi, itinerary changes and for breathing recycled air 😀 Southwest just stayed true to who they were – and they are the most profitable airline in the world because of it.

Tobacco, pornography and checked bag fees are no doubt bad for the consumer, but also incredibly profitable for business. I believe every business has a tobacco, pornography or checked bag fee decision in them. And great leaders need to identify these issues within their organizations and do what great leaders do – make tough decisions!