Walmart wants to teach compassion to store managers

On a stormy afternoon in Bentonville, Ark., a Walmart regional manager told the story of a moment when his humanity failed.

He was a 24-year-old store manager who was anxiously trying to convince his employees to set up merchandise displays for Halloween. Instead, workers were gathered around televisions in the electronics department. It was the morning of September 11, 2001.

“Why are we here not having Halloween?” Why hasn't this been done yet? he remembers saying. He didn't really understand what was happening until an employee ran into him in tears, explaining that she had family in New York.

“I didn't take a minute to survey the room to understand the ramifications of my words and actions,” former store manager David Seymore, now a regional vice president at Walmart, told listeners . “I grew up very quickly that day.”

His remarks were meant to serve as an object lesson. Mr. Seymore, who now manages 110 stores in the South and Midwest with annual sales of $11 billion, was speaking to a group of Walmart and Sam's Club store managers who came to Walmart headquarters for a leadership training program that took place. almost every week at the retailer since July 2022.

Walmart and Sam's Club store managers run multimillion-dollar businesses and manage hundreds of workers. Their ability to drive sales has a direct effect on the company's revenue, which totaled $648.1 billion last year worldwide.

But the company says its management style also matters. Most weeks, Walmart flies a group of 50 people from around the country — about 1,800 last year total, and 2,200 expected this year — to what it calls its Manager Academy.

Throughout the sessions, trainers reinforce the message that Walmart's success is only possible if store managers take care of their employees, customers and the community in which they operate.

“The intention of the academy is to walk away knowing what our values ​​are, what our expectations are of leaders, how can we operate effectively with a view to putting our people first? said Donna Morris, director of human resources for Walmart Inc.

Over the years, Walmart – the largest private employer in the United States with 1.6 million workers – has been accused of focusing more on the bottom line than its store employees. In unsuccessful lawsuits and union campaigns, Walmart workers said the company's business practices were harmful to their physical, mental and emotional health.

In one case from 2022, an employee with a medical condition died during her shift when a store was short-staffed and her manager allegedly told her to “get it together” when she asked to go home. her, according to report in The New Republic.

Ms. Morris declined to comment on the matter, but said that “we always ensure that our employees are the first line a manager should think about.”

Walmart isn't the only company working to get its leaders to think this way. The emphasis on compassionate leadership became a notable topic of conversation in businesses about two years ago, said Jessica Kriegel, a professional training consultant who has studied the topic.

“What’s important here is that making employees feel cared for is directly related to communication,” Ms. Kriegel said. “And those who communicate most with the front line are their supervisors. This is why frontline supervisors are so essential, because if they communicate effectively, staff feel cared for.»

Most Walmart executives participated in the Manager Academy's predecessor, the Walton Institute, established in the 1980s. And the training has a broader impact: Many Walmart executives eventually deploy to other companies in the industry of retail.

“This Walton Institute was an incredible way to immerse yourself in the Walmart culture while being away from home,” said Horacio Barbeito, who spent 26 years with the company. “And then you come back to your market really filled with a lot of company culture and then you become an ambassador and an enabler.” He left Walmart in 2022 to lead Old Navy, a retailer he sees as having similar corporate purpose and values.

John Furner, general manager of Walmart US and an Arkansas native whose father also worked at Walmart, began his career as an hourly employee at the retailer in 1993. As he rose through the ranks, he trained at the Walton Institute. There was also a focus on company culture, but at the time the company was still relatively small and it was possible to get to know the best leaders.

“You weren’t a number,” Mr. Furner said. “You weren’t just someone who was supposed to produce results.”

But especially since the start of the pandemic, store managers have faced new challenges, shifting from in-store to online shopping, higher staff turnover and sometimes unruly shoppers. And as the company grew, it became more difficult to make them feel connected to the company's mission. Mr. Furner suggested to Walmart's global chief executive, Doug McMillon, that it was time for the company to reinstate an in-person training program for store managers.

During the training, former and current executives speak, including Mr. Furner. (Participants even meet the company's founder, Sam Walton, sort of. At the company's heritage museum, there's a hologram of Mr. Walton explaining how he used watermelons and horseback rides. (donkey to initially attract people to the stores.) Participants are given a one-hour tour around the stores. headquarters where passing executives stop and chat — and are sometimes peppered with questions about the company.

Things also get specific. Managers participate in small-group sessions on how to make everyone, from the mechanics in the auto repair department to the night shift workers who mop floors and those who restock apples in the grocery aisle, feel like they are contributing to the greatest corporate mission. They think about how to deal with problems both general (understanding others' values) and specific (planning snafus).

The program gets store managers thinking not only about what's next, but also how to keep their employees engaged and find other opportunities within the company. And ultimately, Walmart is in the business of selling and measures the effectiveness of this program based on that.

With “very strong store managers who are driven by purpose and values,” said Lorraine Stomski, who runs Walmart's learning and leadership programs, “we can achieve better business results.”

Walmart also relaxed incentives to keep managers motivated and prevent them from leaving for other opportunities. This year he has salary increase for its store managers, increasing base pay to $128,000 and announcing stock awards of up to $20,000. Top-performing Walmart managers now have the opportunity to earn more than $400,000 per year.

In interviews conducted by Walmart, store managers who participated in the program said they appreciated the emphasis on company culture during the training. Laurice Miller, a 39-year-old store manager at a Sam's Club in Keller, Texas, who started 20 years ago as an hourly employee and now manages 165 people, said that before coming in January, she had received comments from people. work for her: they sought to establish a relationship with her.

Since participating in the program, she said she has taken the time to chat informally. (“How was your weekend? What can I do to help?”) “I think those things are essential when you're together for eight hours, 40 hours a week,” she said. declared.

Daniel Harrelson, a 30-year-old store manager in Fayetteville, Ark., attended the training in October. He started at Walmart as an hourly employee and was promoted to store manager during the pandemic and supervises 450 workers.

He learned about resources the company sets aside for workers in need, such as free counseling classes and funds for those facing housing crises that may result from fires or violence domestics. For some of his employees, “Walmart is usually one of the only stable things they have,” he said.

There were also lighter elements to the training that help reinforce its culture. Take the meetings that managers hold in the store with their employees. It all starts with enthusiastic cheers – a tradition that Sam Walton started in the 1970s.

During the pandemic, large meetings have been abandoned to adhere to social distancing guidelines. The joy also fell by the wayside. But the training, he said, helped him realize how important it was to restore the custom.

“It’s not something spectacular, but it’s something pretty fun,” he said. “It lightens the mood, and that’s something Sam Walton did.”

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