Recently when I was having a conversation with a current high-ranking executive at Wal-Mart, I was telling him how back in the late 1980’s I was part of a Procter & Gamble group of that was working with a group of Wal-Mart execs, including Sam Walton himself. We were trying to implement ways the two companies could work together more easily. The person I was chatting with told me that while he had never met Sam, all Wal-Mart employees know all about Sam and that he is universally respected.
I then went on to elaborate how Sam was so down to earth that you instantly were comfortable getting into the details of solving the problem at hand and critiquing each other’s ideas. You instantly realized he was friendly, funny, and intensely driven to find a way to jump on a new idea or improve an existing situation.
In thinking about Sam Walton, here are three characteristics that he practiced that really produce the kind of leaders the troops believe in and we anxious to follow:
• Be Open About Who You Are and Completely Approachable: Here’s a quote of Sam explaining what I mean: “I still can’t believe it was news that I get my hair cut at the barbershop. Where else would I get it cut?” Sam’s direct reports always told me the great thing about Sam was that you had no fear explaining your problems to him; he genuinely wanted to help.
• Define the Ultimate Goal and Set Deadlines for Each Task to Get There: In the P&G/Wal-Mart efforts referenced above, Sam defined the goal as having P&G computers linked to Wal-Mart computers in order to automate daily replenishment of P&G products in Wal-Mart warehouses. He then defined the first task as programming the computers to do this and testing the system on one product; Pampers disposable diapers. He challenged the group to get this done in six weeks and have our next meeting then to review the results. Amazingly, we did it!
• Constantly Focus on Ways to Improve: In his famous weekly Saturday morning meetings, Sam would have key managers from the various geographies explain what things were not going well, and then all 300+ managers in the audience brainstormed how the situation could be improved and whether anyone had already implemented a bright idea to handle the problem. Nobody was embarrassed or felt the need to “impress the boss” since Sam was so human and non-threatening.
Want to be a leader your people believe in? Emulate Sam, an absolute business legend!