Sam Walton (1918–1992,) the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club, was arguably the most successful entrepreneur of his generation. He was passionate about retailing, loved his work, and built and ran Walmart with boundless energy.
“Made in America” is Walton’s very educational, insightful, and stimulating autobiography. It’s teeming with Walton’s relentless search for better ideas, learning from competitors, managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage, asking incessant questions of day-to-day operations, listening to employees at all levels of Walmart, and inventing creative ways to foster an idea-driven culture. “Made in America” is also filled with anecdotes from Walton’s associates and family members—in fact, some of their opinions are less than flattering.
Former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch once said, “Walton understood people the way Thomas Edison understood innovation and Henry Ford, production. He brought out the very best in his employees, gave his very best to his customers, and taught something of value to everyone he touched.”
Here are ten insightful management ideas from “Made in America” with the relevant anecdotes from Walton or his associates.
- When hiring employees, look for passion and desire to grow. Having the right skills and qualifications is no doubt essential in a potential employee, but a better predictor of long-term success and career advancement is his/her passion for learning new things, commitment to a task, and a drive to get things done. A former Walmart executive recalls, “Sam would take people with hardly any retail experience, give them six months with us, and if he thought they showed any real potential to merchandise a store and manage people, he’d give them a chance. He’d make them an assistant manager. They were the ones who would go around and open all the new stores and they would be next in line to manage their own store. In my opinion, most of them weren’t anywhere near ready to run stores, but Sam proved me wrong there. He finally convinced me. If you take someone who lacks the experience and the know-how but has the real desire and the willingness to work his tail off to get the job done, he’ll make up for what he lacks.”
- Delegate and follow up. Delegation is indispensable; yet it remains one of the most underutilized and underdeveloped managerial skills. One element of effective delegation is consistent follow-up. Far too often, managers will delegate a task and then fail to follow up to see how things are going. Such failure to follow-up is tantamount to abdication of accountability for results, which still lies with the manager. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “As famous as Sam is for being a great motivator … he is equally good at checking on the people he has motivated. You might call his style: management by looking over your shoulder.”
- Persist and rally people to the cause. Passionate managers demonstrate the energy and drive needed to rally their teams around a shared vision. They engage their employees with the same messages over and over, escalate their sense of urgency, and get their vision implemented quickly. Former Walmart CEO David Glass recalls, “When Sam feels a certain way, he is relentless. He will just wear you out. He will bring up an idea, we’ll all discuss it and then decide maybe that it’s not something we should be doing right now—or ever. Fine. Case closed. But as long as he is convinced that it is the right thing, it just keeps coming up—week after week after week—until finally everybody capitulates and says, well, it’s easier to do it than to keep fighting this fight. I guess it could be called management by wearing you down.”
- Mentor, critique, and inspire employees. Mentoring employees is an effective way to improve employee performance and build trust and loyalty. Effective mentoring is not merely telling employees what to do. It is helping them broaden and deepen their thinking by clarifying their goals and asking the right questions. Effective mentoring is also about supporting employees as they learn and practice new skills and habits. Walton writes, “I’ve been asked if I was a hands-on manager or an arm’s-length type. I think really I’m more of a manager by walking and flying around, and in the process I stick my fingers into everything I can to see how it’s coming along. I’ve let our executives make their decisions—and their mistakes—but I’ve critiqued and advised them.”
- Invest in frontline employees for better customer relationships. Much of customers’ opinions about a business come from the myriad interactions they have with customer-interfacing frontline employees, who are the face of any business. If a business doesn’t get these customer experiences right, nothing else matters. Walton writes, “The way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchases based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers … are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do. So, in the whole Wal-Mart scheme of things, the most important contact ever made is between the associate in the store and the customer.”
- Treat employees like business partners and empower them by sharing information. Effective managers foster open communication by treating employees as co-owners of the business and sharing operational data regularly. Managers empower employees by helping them understand how their contribution makes a difference, discussing opportunities and challenges, and encouraging them to contribute to solutions. Walton writes, “Our very unusual willingness to share most of the numbers of our business with all the associates … It’s the only way they can possibly do their jobs to the best of their abilities—to know what’s going on in their business. … Sharing information and responsibility is a key to any partnership. It makes people feel responsible and involved …. In our individual stores, we show them their store’s profits, their store’s purchases, their store’s sales, and their store’s markdowns.
- Never be satisfied. There’s always room for improvement. Effective managers never rest on their laurels and are persistently dissatisfied with the status quo. They possess a pervasive obsession for discovering problems and improving products, services, and people. Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus recalls, “If you ask Sam how’s business, he’s never satisfied. He says, ‘Bernie, things are really lousy. Our lines are too long at the cash registers. Our people aren’t being helpful enough. I don’t know what we’re gonna do to get them motivated.’ Then you ask some of these CEOs from other retail organizations who you know are on the verge of going out of business, and they brag and tell you how great everything is. Really putting on airs. Not Sam. He is down to earth and knows who he is.”
- Appreciate employees and give honest feedback. A key determinant of employee engagement is whether employees feel their managers genuinely care. Do the managers provide regular, direct feedback, both appreciative and corrective? Do they coach employees in their learning and career growth? Walton writes, “Keeping so many people motivated to do the best job possible involves … appreciation. All of us like praise. So what we try to practice in our company is to look for things to praise. … We want to let our folks know when they are doing something outstanding, and let them know they are important to us. You can’t praise something that’s not done well. You can’t be insincere. You have to follow up on things that aren’t done well. There is no substitute for being honest with someone and letting them know they didn’t do a good job. All of us profit from being corrected—if we’re corrected in a positive way.”
- Listening to employee’s complaints and concerns could be a positive force for change. Effective managers provide their employees the opportunity to not only contribute their ideas, but also air concerns and complaints. By fostering an environment of open communication, managers who handle employee opinions effectively not only boost employee motivation, performance, and morale, but also benefit from learning directly about problems with teams, organizations, and businesses. Walton writes, “Executives who hold themselves aloof from their associates, who won’t listen to their associates when they have a problem, can never be true partners with them. … Folks who stand on their feet all day stocking shelves or pushing carts of merchandise out of the back room get exhausted and frustrated too, and occasionally they dwell on problems that they just can’t let go of until they’ve shared it with somebody who they feel is in a position to find a solution. … We have really tried to maintain an open-door policy at Wal-Mart. … If the associate happens to be right, it’s important to overrule their manager, or whoever they’re having the problem … . The associates would know pretty soon that it was just something we paid lip service to, but didn’t really believe.”
- Learn from the competition. Effective managers understand that keeping tabs on competitors, copying their innovations as much as possible, and reaching out to customers the way competitors do is a great strategy for growing business. Sam Walton’s brother Bud recalls, “There may not be anything (Walton) enjoys more than going into a competitor’s store trying to learn something from it.” A former K-Mart board member recalls, “(Walton) had adopted almost all of the original Kmart ideas. I always had great admiration for the way he implemented—and later enlarged those ideas. Much later on, when I was retired still a K-Mart board member, I tried to advise (K-Mart) management of just what a serious threat I thought he was. But it wasn’t until recently that they took him seriously.”