Leadership Reflections from Brett Biggs, CFO of Wal-Mart

An Insight from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit

This Insight is taken from the 2019 CFO of the Future Summit.

The first Wal-Mart supercenter opened in 1988, revolutionizing the retail world by combining the sale of general merchandise with a full-scale supermarket. Many call the supercenter the greatest retail invention in the world, but Brett Biggs, Wal-Mart’s CFO, is one of the first to admit that the landscape has changed markedly since then. Despite these changes, Biggs and the rest of the executive team have ensured that the company stays relevant and they continue to innovate beyond expectations. Recently, Biggs shared his learning and insight at Leadership for a Networked World’s 2019 CFO of the Future Summit, which focused on Value at High Velocity.

As the terrain has shifted, especially given the recent popularity of online competitors, Biggs and his team have learned to embrace change as they “create the future, but at the same time, keep the train running” (12). Wal-Mart’s role is “to accelerate the world’s greatest retail transformation”, and Biggs adds, “whatever it takes to do that, that’s what we’re going to do.” Wal-Mart is embracing technology, for example, through automating processes and thinking through how to make the shopping experience more entertaining for kids through VR, but at the same time, is careful to hold onto its foundation, making sure that stores continue to be the community centers they have been for decades.

Key Takeaway 1:

Hold on to what’s working and at the same time embrace change:

Biggs has looked to integrate new technology and automation while at the same time holding on to classic elements of the Wal-Mart retail experience.

We've had to get really comfortable being uncomfortable… we’ve got to move with speed… in the past, we tried to make five decisions and hope they’re perfect, now we want to make 20 decisions, hope 10 of them are really good, five of them are okay, and two of them will be bad”
Brett Biggs
Executive Vice President, and Chief Financial Officer, Walmart

Biggs shared that in embracing change, he and his team had to “get really comfortable being uncomfortable… we’ve got to move with speed… in the past, we tried to make five decisions and hope they’re perfect, now we want to make 20 decisions, hope 10 of them are really good, five of them are okay, and two of them will be bad” (8). In other words, in this fast-changing, high velocity world, it’s crucial to move quickly and take risks. It’s just as crucial, Biggs said, to stop when something isn’t going right. For example, Wal-Mart has sold assets when necessary. Biggs also spoke about admitting mistakes to investors while also being up-front about learning from and trying to correct mistakes. In the spirit of moving quickly and taking risks, Biggs spoke about having to navigate away from becoming the ‘chief no officer.’ He had to learn to say yes to things that are exciting – and to be excited –to enhance his credibility and to give him the right to say no at other times. Although his first instinct may have been to say no to the idea of Wal-Mart’s online grocery because of the cost, he pushed himself to say yes to his CEO, and the idea became a massive hit with customers.

At the same time as it’s important to be comfortable with discomfort in terms of risk-taking, Biggs shared that it’s also important to maintain clear and honest communication with employees in times of flux. Biggs advises over-communication in these moments. Many Wal-Mart employees acutely feel the threat to their job security that automation poses. Biggs’ approach was to tell them: “Look, there are some of your jobs that aren’t going to be in the same form five years from now, but we want to help you learn new skills. We want to help you change, if you want to. It’s going to take energy because change takes energy. You need to have that energy, but we’re going to help you if you want to be helped” (9). As a leader, having the courage to stand up and tell the truth is critical not only to assuaging fears, but to building and maintaining relationships of trust with colleagues at all levels of the organization.

Key Takeaway 2:

Stand up and be honest with investors, colleagues and employees in times of flux:

Biggs has been open with employees about how to cope with and overcome job insecurity in times of enhanced automation, has been forthright and open to giving and receiving feedback from colleagues, and has been open with investors about mistakes and improvements.

Biggs builds and values relationships with colleagues, and spoke about the importance of bringing people along with you. In other words, it’s crucial not to value speed in decision-making so much that one forgets the importance of team ownership and input at key crossroads. Biggs has learned to embrace both giving and receiving feedback, and has tried to operationalize colleagues’ positive and developmental feedback into his own work. He highlighted the importance of maintaining lightness and a sense of humor at work, even – and especially – in moments of high stress: “When stuff feels like it’s coming off the rails, I just go, ‘We’ve gotten through a lot of stuff. We’ll do it again.” Trust, humor, honesty and communication are essential to stellar leadership in Biggs’ eyes.

Culture is also key. Biggs spoke about how critical it is to hire forward-thinking leaders: people who lean into change. He looks to augment his leadership team with people who are readers, and people who cultivate generalist knowledge because they are curious. If it seems that a potential hire is a cultural mismatch for the company, Biggs advises passing them over. While cognitive diversity is essential, people also have to demonstrate buy-in to company culture to be a good fit on the team. While the only certainty may be that the landscape will continue to change, Biggs’ approach to teamwork, culture, communication and leadership ensure that Wal-Mart will continue to not only stay relevant, but be at the forefront of the ongoing retail transformation.

Key Takeaway 3:

Culture is key:

Biggs looks to hire curious leaders who are knowledgeable, forward thinking, and who embrace change. Because they are a good fit with company culture, the company can continue to grow and innovate.

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