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Michelle Peluso of Gilt Groupe: I Don’t Need an Ivory Tower (or an Office)

This interview with Michelle Peluso, chief executive of Gilt Groupe, the online shopping site, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

April 19, 2014
New York Times
by Adam Bryant

Q. Early leadership lessons for you?

A. My grandparents had a bunch of different businesses after the war. My dad is an entrepreneur too — he runs an environmental engineering firm. He’s a huge role model for me. He was just authentically passionate about his people. His employees were a big part of our lives. At company picnics, you would be expected, as a kid, to remember the names of the 200 people who worked at his company, as well as their spouses and kids. My mom was a teacher, and she loves the idea of curiosity. She wanted me to love learning.

Q. Any expressions you would often hear from them?

A. My dad is a remarkably optimistic person. If you were at the dinner table and complaining about a teacher or somebody else, he would shut those conversations down in a heartbeat. His favorite line was, “Well, it’s supereasy to criticize.” I remember one time during dinner he said something somewhat negative about a politician, and we were in shock.

Q. How has your leadership style evolved?

A. When I was younger, I often made one of two mistakes. One, I cared so much about people that I overestimated their trajectory or I pushed them too fast. That’s not fair for anybody involved. Two, I sometimes kept people on the team because their skill set was so great, even though they were kind of poisonous. I call them morale zombies. Now I make decisions really fast on that stuff.

Q. Anything unusual about your leadership style today?

A. I don’t have an office. When I started at Gilt, I wanted to get to know the various teams, so I’d set up and work with them for a week. I joined their meetings and tried to do their work. When you’re sitting in the open with everybody, you pick up a lot. That was my schedule the first eight weeks, but I just loved it, and more than a year later, I haven’t stopped. I never want to be sitting in an ivory tower surrounded by people who tell me what I want to hear, or feeling that I don’t really understand how people feel and what’s going on.

Q. What else is unusual about the culture?

A. I’ve always taken a slightly different approach with 360 reviews. We’ll share them with each other on the executive team, and I’ll start with mine — here is where I’m good, and here is where I’m not doing so well. I’ll even tell the whole company, and say, “Here is where I want your help.” That makes it a bit safer for other people to do the same, and you can build trust.

Q. And what do people say about you in the 360s?

A. I’m superpassionate. I care a lot about people and developing people. I’m quick, analytical and strategic, and there’s a good mix of grasping the big picture as well as details. On the flip side, because I can be so passionate and sometimes dominate discussions, that can give people license to be lazier, in some ways, because they assume I’ve already made up my mind or that I’ll figure it out. That goes against all my passion about developing people.

Q. How do you hire?

A. First of all, I hate job hoppers. It’s just a personal pet peeve. In every job, you go through your honeymoon phase, and then you’re challenged. The question is, do you have the personality to have longevity and to make an impact? I understand that maybe it’s more generational, and maybe I’m crossing over to the old generation, and soon I’m going to start talking about how I walked to school barefoot, uphill both ways. But I like grit and persistence, and I like loyalty.

I always ask: “Let’s assume you get hired. Flash forward a year from now, when you’ll be telling me what you’re going to be proud of. What would success look like to you?” You learn a lot about what motivates people. Will they talk about “I, I, I,” or “we”? I love people who talk more about teamwork and leadership.

Q. Any other good questions you ask?

A. I hate asking the question “What are you not good at?” because everyone has a rehearsed answer. But I will say to them, “O.K., I’ve interviewed an eclectic crowd about you: the guy who delivers your food, the last people you worked with, the person who can’t stand you the most, your best friend from high school, your mother’s neighbor, your kindergarten teacher, your high school math teacher who loved you, and last boss. Now if I were to say to them, ‘Give me three adjectives that best describe you,’ what would I hear?”

If they give me glowing adjectives, I’ll say, “Remember, this group includes some people who didn’t get along with you so well. What three words are they going to use?” It’s a tough question, and nobody wants to answer it, really. But I do want to know, “What is top of mind for you?”

Q. Your advice for college students?

A. One thing I talk about is simplification. As the world gets faster and faster, it’s important to be good at understanding what your priorities are and how you spend your time, and editing out the things that are noise. You have to stay really focused.

When I speak to women, I also talk about grace, one of my favorite words. If you’re going to live a bold life, and if you’re going to take risks and try to step out of your comfort zone, you are going to occasionally fail, make some missteps and disappoint yourself. There are going to be times where you’re not going to be the mom you want to be, and sometimes you’re not going to be the C.E.O. you want to be. Grace is meeting those moments on the journey, then picking yourself back up, being humble enough to learn and not being too hard on yourself. You need something that is going to ground you and comfort you. For me, that’s grace.

Michelle Peluso of Gilt Groupe: I Don’t Need an Ivory Tower (or an Office)

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