Walmart CEO: To tackle today’s challenges, ‘listen with open ears and an open heart’
During 2020, we have experienced a range of emotions—from those related to the COVID-19 pandemic to those stemming from racial violence and injustice. In both cases, my inspiration and hope for the future come not only from seeing how people have reached out to others and how they have come together to solve problems, but also how they’ve done so despite their differences.
Our country frequently seems more divided than ever on how to approach everything from climate change to the economy. I think the path to understanding begins with honest, open conversations. Deciding to listen with open ears and an open heart brings us together. We need to seek to really understand each other. We need to demonstrate empathy. If we can make these individual connections, we can strengthen our communities and nation.
Like people, when companies work to foster a culture of collaboration, communication becomes second nature. It’s important for the day-to-day operation of a business, but it’s also essential when the stakes are high, as they are today. Companies with cultures that celebrate diverse opinions and encourage the exchange of ideas have an advantage when solving difficult problems. A company that doesn’t is at a clear disadvantage. And it’s tough to create a culture of open communication when a crisis is unfolding. Conversely, companies with cultures that have not been cultivated to invite dialogue when waters are less turbulent are unlikely to do so in a moment of dire need.
Organizational culture is typically developed in one of two ways. Sometimes, it’s intentionally built to reflect a set of values and then reinforced over time through actions, examples, and stories. Other times, culture emerges by accident, the product of a million spontaneous actions that over time become habits—for better or worse. At Walmart, we’re fortunate to have had a founder who viewed culture as something to actively model and shape. For him, it seemed to be just common sense for how you build a business—especially when that business was serving people. Behaviors like servant leadership, listening, and collaboration were repeated because they worked.
Many of our long-term associates experienced this firsthand. They remember days when Sam Walton would visit their stores. He had a habit of showing up unannounced; without introducing himself, he would walk up to associates and ask, “How are you? Tell me about yourself. What do you think we could do better?” Then he’d listen. In his hand, as much a part of his uniform as his Walmart cap, was a yellow legal pad where he jotted down what he heard. He would bring that yellow pad to our leadership meetings on Friday and Saturday and share what he learned and tell us what he wanted to see from us. Those visits were a source of countless ideas for improvement within the company. As he modeled that behavior, the leadership team copied him and followed that lead. Culture was being shaped.
Today, as our country, and the world, works through one of the most challenging moments in history—the product of a global health crisis, the economic crisis that goes with it, and the pervasive injustice of systemic racism—we’re inspired to make a positive difference, to build a better company and help contribute to a better world. We operate in 27 countries these days, and our associates are stepping up in every one of them.
Unsurprisingly to me, Walmart’s culture, which respects individual contributions and where team members can feel comfortable sharing their input, has enabled us to contribute to solutions. Sam Walton started it, and our associates carry it on. As I’ve traveled around the U.S. during the year, I’ve seen it. As our leaders visit stores, Sam’s Clubs, store distribution centers, and e-commerce fulfillment centers, we are guided by Sam’s example. We ask our associates about what’s working and what’s not. Throughout these past months, many of the steps we have taken to ensure our associates’ and customers’ health and safety have come out of these conversations. Similarly, the work we’re doing to increase fairness, equity, and justice inside our company—and hopefully influence national systems where we can have an impact—is being led by associates. We’re asking them to learn, communicate, and share ideas and solutions. The goal of the company is to use our business and philanthropic resources to support their ideas.
I also know we’re not alone in this work. Especially recently, we have seen companies like ours—those with cultures built on collaboration and sharing ideas—come together with a shared mission. We all agree that the strength of our businesses is dependent on a healthy workforce. That’s why the 181 companies that form the Business Roundtable joined to adopt a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, one that declares we should not just serve shareholders, but also deliver value to our customers, associates, suppliers, communities, and the planet. These stakeholders are the heart of our business, and it’s possible for us to serve, listen to, and care for all of them—not one or the other.
I’ve always been impressed by the ability Walmart associates have for coming up with creative solutions and then implementing them. That’s never been the case more than now. Our people are being candid and bold in addressing the unique challenges we, our communities, and our country face. As they do that, now, maybe more than ever, collectively—as individuals, companies, communities and a nation—we need to build the kind of culture that creates solutions for today and that will build a strong foundation for tomorrow.
We have to see past our differences and listen intently. Sometimes that means engaging in a difficult, but respectful, dialogue. Sometimes it means hearing, and really thinking about, another opinion more than just thinking about how to refute what they said or just giving your own. And sometimes it means flexibility—allowing ourselves to be persuaded and open to changing our positions when ideas are presented thoughtfully and with logic and supported by facts. To me, that’s the only way meaningful and effective progress will be made.
Doug McMillon is president and chief executive of Walmart and chair of the Business Roundtable. This article was originally written for The Dialogue Project, a global effort by a coalition of businesses and academic institutions to promote the role of business in improving civil discourse and reducing polarization.