I had the privilege of being acquainted with Sam Walton before his death in 1992, and of building relationships with many of the people he impacted during the years immediately following his death. Because of the significance of the loss, I, like many others associated with Wal-Mart can tell you exactly where I was when he died. I was at one of the 16 regional Year Beginning Meetings that were scattered throughout the first quarter of that year. The announcement changed the meeting as people began to tell stories of the impact Sam had on their lives, both personally and professionally.
I have been writing a lot lately about leadership derailment. Sam knew how susceptible leaders are to the mistakes and miscues that can lead to derailment. That is why he led and coached the way he did. One of the things that you would often hear around Wal-Mart after his death, was the question, “What would Mr. Sam do?” The question was intended to honor Sam, and to help people do what they could to sustain the incredible culture of Servant Leadership that he instilled during his life.
Since my last few posts have been focused on “empathy deficit” as a potential derailer, I have asked myself how does one restore empathy to leadership? Sam Walton said you do it by MBWA, or Management by Walking Around, and teaching other leaders to do the same.
For several years I had the privilege of working Andy Wilson, who was an SVP at Wal-Mart. He humbly tells the story of his rise within the company, being the youngest Regional VP in the company at the time, with a great deal of responsibility for a guy his age. He tells the story of how “Mr. Sam”, as he had come to be affectionately known, came to his office shortly after his arrival in his new role at the Home Office. Andy stood up to greet Mr. Sam, and after a series of exchanges, Sam ended up behind his chair, while Andy ended up on the opposite side of his desk. He then tells how Mr. Sam said he had one very important thing to tell him. With that Andy got out his pen and yellow pad prepared to capture this moment. Then Mr. Sam said, “Andy, don’t every make an important decision while sitting behind this chair”, and he slapped his hand to the back of the chair to reinforce his point. Andy says he wasn’t certain at the time what that meant, but he wrote it at the top of the page, and was waiting for more wisdom from the man himself, but, with that, Sam graciously left his office.
Andy said that after pondering this for several days, he received a call from one of his district managers who wanted to inform him that he was going to terminate one of his store managers whose store was under-performing. This district manager was much older than Andy and had a great deal more experience than he. Because of this, Andy was about to simply accept this recommendation and move on, when he remembered Sam’s words. He told the District Manager to hold off on that decision until he came out to visit. The District Manager said he didn’t see the necessity for such a trip, and told Andy that he had called simply to inform him of his course of action. Andy told him that he had to travel out to some of his stores each week, and he would use the upcoming week to travel to this district. Andy “persuaded” him to delay the action until after the trip and on the following Monday morning Andy was in this manager’s store. The District Manager was eager to call the manager into his back office and get the deed over with. But, as had been a practice he had learned from Sam, Andy wanted to tour the store first. He asked the District Manager to go do whatever he needed to do while he made his MBWA rounds. So Andy went around the store asking associates about their departments and asking about their manager. In the course of about an hour he learned that the manager was well liked, and that he had been taking time away from the store lately because he had been caring for his wife who was very ill with cancer.
After the store tour, Andy said he rounded up the District Manager and they went for a ride. He asked the District Manager to tell him a little about this manager he was preparing to fire. The fellow made a valiant attempt to do so. Andy asked him to tell him about the manager’s family, and again the district manager made a valiant attempt to do so, but failed miserably. Andy informed him what he had learned in just under an hour, while he, the district Manager, who lived in the area and visited the store frequently, never thought to inquire about. In the Wal-Mart culture, such an offense in those days, would have been worthy of some type of discipline, up to and including termination. But that is not the course Andy took. He asked the District Manager to put together a plan to bring help from nearby stores in his district to get this store back up on track. Together, they assured the manager that he could take the time necessary to care for his wife, and that his job would be here when she was well and he returned. They announced the plan to the store associates at one of their infamous stand-up meetings and the employees erupted in applause.
Empathy is not hard. However it does require taking your eyes off the scoreboard and paying attention to your players in the field. No wonder so many Wal-Mart Associates still use the “What would Mr. Sam do?” as a measurement of their leadership.