Like most retailers, Walmart began its journey by opening just one store. Still standing today in Rogers, Arkansas (but now a Supercenter), the first Walmart opened its doors in 1962. Yet over the last 57 years, Walmart stands out from other retailers by the sheer magnitude of its growth. The company has become a household name and now boasts a total revenue of $515 billion and $28 billion in operating cash flow. It has retail presence in 27 countries and employs 2.2 million total associates who help to complete an average of 275 million transactions per week. At Leadership for a Networked World’s 2019 CFO of the Future Summit, Brett Biggs, Walmart’s current executive vice president and CFO, shared how Sam Walton and his successors operationalized and sustain this growth, exemplifying this year’s summit theme: Value at High Velocity. Grounding his words in a foundational quote from Sam Walton: “to succeed in this world, you have to change all the time,” Biggs shared how the company upholds a culture that embraces change. At the same time, Biggs shared, as Walmart grows, it continues to value experience by focusing on one store and one customer at a time.
As he told the story of Walmart’s evolution, Biggs noted that the retailer has become a completely different company since the Rogers, Arkansas store opened. Some might assume that the company has become a conglomerate, but Biggs and his colleagues tend to think of the organization as an ecosystem instead. This means that they consistently think towards trying to make customers’ lives better. “We have a lot of touchpoints with the customer now,” Biggs said, including social, logistics, home personal services and digital entertainment. “[A conglomerate and an ecosystem] can look really similar, but in this case, we’re trying to give things to the customer that they need … we continue to be in customers’ lives and make a difference rather than just having them shop with us.” Walmart has grown by carefully tuning into customers’ desires as an additive presence, iteratively ready to demonstrate flexibility as customers’ needs – and the market – changes.
In addition to the cultural shift that came with the company’s exponential growth, Biggs shared, the structure of the organization has also changed. Global Business Services became a part of finance, which then became Walmart Enterprise Solutions. Walmart Enterprise Solutions comprises all finance groups as well as the Gold Business Services and demonstrates an umbrella-like approach. “We can’t keep doing [finance] in silos and segments,” Biggs said. “We’ve got to bring things together.” In this way, organizational structure enhances communication and efficiency to better participate in the overall ecosystem.
Biggs named four key tenets which help Walmart to lead and innovate to produce solutions. First, the company prides itself on growing leaders. Biggs said: “I like people who will dive after the ball even if it’s not theirs. People who go do it and take hold of problems. Go solve things. We’ve talked a lot about leading and solutions. Don’t tell me it’s not in your segment. We’ve got to solve problems for customers.” Second, Walmart associates strive to “change how [they] work” all the time, eradicating deficits by shifting their approach to problems. This requires carefully tuning in to unanticipated issues as they arise and being flexible enough to change course if need be. Third, the company drives value by always striving to provide its partners with solutions. And fourth, Biggs said, Walmart Enterprise Solutions protects the company by getting the numbers right and delivering value to clients.
The tenets Biggs expressed can be realized only insofar as leaders within the company uphold them through their actions. Biggs and his team isolated nine key leadership behaviors which have helped to create a vision and mission for colleagues. These include:
Although these are often classified as “soft skills”, they are what make people across the organization effective in solving real issues. Additionally, Biggs said, articulating these behaviors helps to give associates a common language, especially when it comes to motivation and rationale around promotion structures. He elaborated: “if you’re good at these things, you’re competent at your job and you’re going to get pretty far in your career. If you do these things and you’re really good at what you do, there’s no limit for you.” Walmart’s story is far from over. Its trajectory helps to remind us of the importance of organizations growing their own ecosystems by simultaneously embracing values of macro-level, large-scale change as well as a micro-level customer-oriented mindset.
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